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Fighting the Frontier Mentality

Opinion | February 4, 2013

On January 17, 2013, US President Barack Obama pledged, “I will put everything I’ve got into [gun control],” in response to public outcry following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. But this particular incident is just another debacle in a long line of public shootings—from Columbine and Virginia Tech to Tucson and Aurora—that have demonstrated the futility of American gun control policies. The only difference is that Newtown has galvanized much-needed debate and discussion about the restriction and availability of firearms in the United States.

President Obama’s words turned out to be more than empty platitudes. He recently proposed a series of reforms aimed at reducing gun violence, including reinstating the assault weapons ban, restricting ammunition magazines, and implementing universal background checks for the purchase of firearms. But the serious opposition of gun control proposals in the last month since the Sandy Hook shooting indicates that these reforms will likely create significant controversy.

On the eve of President Obama’s announcement, the National Rifle Association (NRA) issued an ad titled “Elitist Hypocrite,” which accused Obama of being “skeptical” of its idea to place armed guards in schools. The NRA made sure to accentuate the fact that the President’s own two daughters have a handsome Secret Service detail, which apparently makes him an elitist charlatan deserving of public disdain.

Instead of engaging in serious and productive dialogue on the current state of gun control in the United States, the media spotlight has been dominated by sensationalist coverage of what can only be described as a circus. During the December 23 segment of NBC’s Meet the Press, host David Gregory displayed a high-capacity ammunition magazine in the middle of his conversation with NRA head Wayne LaPierre. The content of the debate was rendered completely irrelevant as soon as people began to incessantly question whether or not Gregory would face criminal charges for his antics (he didn’t).

Then, CNN’s Piers Morgan held a televised debate with conservative talk-show host Alex Jones that made Gregory’s shenanigans look perfectly harmless. Jones, who led a very public effort to actually deport Morgan for his “unconstitutional” views on this issue, constantly berated the British host during the segment, all the while comparing gun control advocates to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Chávez. When Morgan tried to bring up the lower murder rates in Britain, where civilian access to firearms is severely limited, Jones simply retorted by raising his shouting to an even higher volume and then adopting a mock British accent.

Despite the lunacy, Morgan’s segment did raise an important question: How does the United States compare to the rest of the world when it comes to gun control? According to a 2011 report by the Small Arms Survey, there are about 89 firearms per 100 people in the United States. The country with the second most guns in civilian hands is India, with a meager four firearms per 100 people.

Furthermore, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime data report shows that in 2009, there were a staggering 10, 300 homicides by firearms in the United States, which would mean that there were approximately 10.2 homicides for every 100, 000 people. By the same criteria, Finland had 4.5 homicides, Canada had 2.5, and the United Kingdom had 0.3.

These statistics were true even before Newtown, but it seems as if the latest massacre was a tipping point for many. The latest Gallup poll shows that public dissatisfaction with America’s gun control policies has increased from 25% to 38% following the Newtown shootings, which is the highest rate since 2001. In addition, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 52% of all Americans said that the shootings made them favor gun control more. Many Newtown residents also joined the group of 1, 000 people who marched on Washington on January 26 in support of gun control measures.

The time to act is now. It has been over a month since the Sandy Hook shootings but media coverage of this national debate on gun control has not faded. It’s sobering to think that it took the deaths of 20 children to get to this point, but necessary attention has finally been drawn to a critical issue. Almost certainly, proposals for any serious changes will face an uphill battle, but gun control advocates need to continuously raise awareness of these statistics and stress the importance of demanding reforms from elected officials.

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on the matter, “There are lives involved here. And if you can save one life, isn’t that worth trying?” No time like the present.